This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave
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Common Core State Standards
Part 8: The Emerging Picture of Natural Learning,
and the Implications for Dealing with the
Common Core State Standards
Renate N. Caine, Professor Emeritus, Cal. State, San Bernardino.
Geoffrey Caine, Executive Director, Caine Learning.
Neuroscience has indeed helped put an end to the deeply engrained
belief that students are little more than empty vessels waiting to be
filled. But has this news transformed or changed how we educate? Other
than using brain-based “strategies that work,” have educators grasped
what Antonia Damasio means when he refers to the human being as an
indissociable human organism where body, emotions, and brain/mind
continuously interact (Damasio, 1994)?
How can we possibly reconcile what is now known about the integrated
nature of human learning with a top-down model of a standards-based
curriculum tied to content testing? How can the current system of
education, deeply steeped in a culture of compliance, possibly engage
in something that mirrors the complexity and power of the human brain
Despite continuous and well-intentioned efforts to refine standards,
they remain embedded in what biologist Richard Dawkins call a “meme.”
In our latest book (Caine and Caine, 2011) we show that the traditional
educational paradigm is a “meme—an organized and taken for granted way
of thinking tied to action based on a powerful belief about how the
world works, one that is shared by a very large number of individuals.”
The education meme prevents significantly new ideas from taking hold
because it takes for granted such matters as teacher control of
content, control of timing for teacher specified goals and assignments,
fragmentation of the curriculum into isolated subjects, organization of
school life into age-based grade levels, formal assessment based on
grade level content, and control of the physical environment for
learning in classrooms that remove rather than engage complexity of
movement and collaboration.
This is the context within which the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
are being implemented. Irrespective of exhortations to the contrary,
their organization and manner of implementation expresses the current
meme. And so, by themselves, they simply cannot change the ways that
teachers teach nor raise the standards achieved by children or the
Something radically different is called for. Sylwester (2012) quite
accurately called the need to place process over product. From our
perspective, that means that educators need to become aware of what we
call natural learning. And the CCSS has to be addressed with natural
learning in mind. Unless that happens, the hoped for benefits of the
CCSS cannot possibly be realized. The system will simply sabotage the
What is Natural Learning?
Much of how the whole human being is involved in learning has become
over the last two decades as a result of the blend of findings from
psychology, biology, and other fields of study. For instance,
- Is physiological
- Is dynamic and emergent
- Blends thoughts and emotions
- Is both individual and social, and
- Is compromised by excessive threat, stress and fatigue.
In life, these processes are commingled in the dance of perception and
action as evidenced in the work of biologists (e.g., Maturana and
Varella, 1998) and neuroscientists (e.g., Fuster, 2003). There is,
first, a perception/action dynamic, which is primarily reflexive. It
begins with a simple, reflexive process that can be observed as the eye
blinks in response to dust or light. It operates at a more
sophisticated level in the momentary adjustments we make during action
such as running, driving a car, or imitation-based learning grounded in
the operation of mirror neurons.
Beyond the perception/action dynamic are what Fuster calls
perception/action cycles. These are the constant problem-solving events
with which every one of us deals many times a day. We constantly
interpret situations in which we find ourselves, perceive personally
relevant problems, explore various modes of action, make decisions,
gain feedback, and either learn or don’t learn something new.
In natural learning the entire system is engaged in this continuing,
ongoing, dynamic process. Hence natural learning is dynamic,
interactive, and emergent. It is holistic and embedded in real world
experience. It is through multiple perception/action cycles that new
patterns and practices form (Caine and Caine, 2011). Hence our
definition of “natural learning” is "making sense of experience and
developing the capacities to act in and on the world".
Learning in school, organized in terms of the traditional meme, is
radically different. Most of it has been confined to memorizing or
developing a shallow understanding of content, independent of personal
meaning, personal choice, and body/mind interaction. And the CCSS are
probably doomed to suffer that fate.
So what can be done? The key need is to understand natural learning,
and then to translate it into the school-based practices in which it
can thrive. And one way to begin is to look at where natural learning
We See Natural Learning at Play in Students
Engaged in Technology
The world is fast becoming what we call a world of videotech
(videos, films, mobile devices of all kinds, and resources such as
search engines, YouTube videos, Google, and iMaps, etc.). And most kids
are at home in that world. Watch them as they play a video game, do a
Web search, or text and talk with others on their smart phones. Better
yet, if you haven't already done so, do it with them.
What you will see is that these tech-savvy kids of all ages:
- Are consulting and working with others.
The concept of "cheating" has largely lost its meaning because they are
working and sharing continuously with others in order to solve problems
they care about.
- They have chosen to be there, they are pursuing their own
interests, and they are asking their own questions.
Although there is a strong social pull, most participants in videotech
are pursuing what is of interest to them, and as they navigate through
that world, they are constantly solving their own problems and asking
the questions to which they want answers. This takes place within a
world of ideas and content that is supplied by their cohort, and not a
single expert or adult.
- They get better at things they care about and are open to ways to
improve. They are ready to practice skills they decide they need.
Video games are such a beautiful example. In the course of play,
players identify areas that require improvement and in consultation
with friends or fellow players determine what is needed.
- Feedback is immediate and constant.
Video games tell them exactly how good they are at mastering a
particular skill or task, and provide indications about what is needed
to improve. Feedback includes failure or missed opportunities that they
can re-visit and improve on. Students have all sorts of ways to
evaluate their own work, and they are constantly exposed to ever
increasing levels of expertise to which they can compare themselves.
- They are emotionally engaged.
Motivation is fueled by emotions and emotions drive action and
learning. Notice how these kids get passionate. (They don't always know
how to control their emotions but with help they can learn how to take
charge of this part of themselves.)
- Have opportunities to self-monitor and pace themselves as needed.
Working on their own projects usually lets them control the pace and
schedule. This allows them to take brief breaks by leaving a task that
feels overwhelming. (Note that play can become compulsive and
self-regulation tends to be missing in much of the world of videotech).
- They focus for a long time on one project or skill.
When they really care about a project or situation or game, their
attention can be sustained for hours.
- They make many decisions.
Decisions are critical to developing the most sophisticated areas of
the brain. This doesn't happen when students merely do what others tell
them to do. Over time they need guidance in how to reflect on what
could happen if they wait too long, shift their attention too often,
consult an expert for critical input, and so forth. They need to
struggle with how to do
something that doesn't have a yes or no, or a
right or wrong, answer.
Ask yourself honestly: Where do students in your school and classes
have an opportunity to master curriculum content such as History, Math,
Literature, Physics, Science, and Social Studies in a way that
incorporates the elements described above. Where do students:
- Consult and work with others.
- Challenge themselves or a group to investigate something they
have chosen to do.
- Apply some information, understanding, or skill they investigate
as a critical question or puzzle.
- Get immediate feedback on what they do, and from multiple sources.
- Become passionate, exited, or otherwise emotionally engaged.
- Make a plan, schedule, or outline of their work that allows them
to pace themselves as needed.
- Focus for a long time on one project or skill that gives them the
opportunity to apply a concept, set of skills, or ideas they need to
- Make appropriate decisions based on what is needed in order to
explore and document their ideas, presentation, or models.
This is how many of our students already function in this new
technology rich culture when they are free to do so. It is natural to
them. Education was never able to answer how to do this kind of
teaching. Technology is in the process of changing all that. The
question for us as educators is how to shift our teaching and school
culture in order to reflect the real world we now live in. We must
adapt and master this new culture.
In a very real sense teachers have to shift their own understanding and
actions to match how their students are learning outside of school. And
instead of being the controller and director of the essential
curriculum, the teacher becomes the master facilitator and the "quality
control" expert. A teacher becomes the individual who is there to help
students improve. In this spirit they can demonstrate, suggest,
question, model, challenge, and enrich student understanding.
From Life To School, and Back Again
As the elements of the dynamic process of natural learning
become clear, it becomes possible to reframe education. Standards can
be embedded into guided experiences so that students come to master new
material and processes in ways that match natural functioning. The key
is to grasp and then incorporate the core elements of the
perception/action cycle. Clearly there are both linear and nonlinear
aspects to the overall process. For the purposes of making them clear,
we spell them out in a sequence.
To begin with, an appropriate degree of immersion in the content matter
needs to exist (think of the way that an infant is naturally immersed
in its native language, or a young child with musical parents is
immersed in music).
The context matters enormously. It needs to consist of complex
situations that are naturally organized so that the whole of a person
can be engaged. What does this look like in practice? The most useful
umbrella concept that we have found is a sophisticated version of what
is called project-based learning
This has been the focus of much attention in the past (e.g., see
Edutopia). The problem is that the phrase project-based learning is
- It can just refer to teacher-constructed activities. These can be
useful but are very limited in accessing students’ natural capacities
- It can refer to more complex projects and problems, where the
teacher designs the project and formulates the questions. This is a
significant advance but still suppresses much of the dance of
perception and action.
- The key is to find a way for students to ask their OWN questions
and design their OWN projects, preferably with real world timelines
that may last a semester or longer, and with guidance, support, and
feedback from educators. This is the sophisticated form of
project-based education that capitalizes on the full depth of natural
learning. Our own version, spelled out in Natural Learning for a Connected World,
is called the Guided Experience Approach (Caine and Caine, 2011).
Within this context, students must be able to:
- Link the new to something that is somewhat familiar already.
- Formulate and engage their own personally meaningful questions,
puzzles, or problems.
- Have access to and be exposed to expert knowledge or important
- Have the opportunity to apply the new knowledge or information to
something they care about.
- Engage in an ongoing dance between continuous and emerging
questions, experimentation, and coaching.
- Receive and be able to take advantage of continuous feedback
- Make it real by acting in some new way or creating something new
and making it available to expert judgment and feedback (summative
Note that the core elements of traditional teaching are not
There may be times for rote memory; there is often a need for a teacher
or coach to provide explanations; practice and rehearsal in the
development of new skills will always be critical (as the research on
expertise makes clear). All
these, however, need to be incorporated into the larger playing out of
perception/action cycles. The entire process is therefore dynamic. And
all of it continues to be influenced by the degree of stress, the types
of threat and challenge, and the nature of the community and
relationships within which the entire process takes place.
Embedding Common Core State Standards
The challenge, now, given that Common Core State Standards are a
fact of life, is to integrate the CCSS with natural learning as
described above. There has to be some give and take because standards,
by their very nature, tend to disregard the internal worlds of meaning
of the students. The standards are always imposed from the outside, as
it were, and need to be brought “inside” so that they can be used by
students in order to make better sense of the world and develop
additional real world capacities. With that in mind:
Can It Be Done?
- This type of learning begins with positive relationships grounded
in mutual respect and decision-making. Collaboration is essential and
basic routes and procedures must be in place.
- Even though standards may be framed for individual subjects, they
should not be taught in isolation. Rather they should be taught
“across” the curriculum because they are often part and parcel of other
subjects and of real life situations.
- Real life, natural learning, and good project-based teaching have
their own time lines. Just as in the real world, these will be
constrained by circumstances. But they cannot and must not be ignored.
That means that the “content” of the CCSS may be important, but the
organization and timing of the elements needs to be freed up to match
good teaching and deep learning.
- Realize that there are major developmental differences in
“normal” students. Ideally, projects can provide an environment for
students who are developing at different rates.
- Authentic assessment must be front and center. See http://pareonline.net/
getvn.asp?v=2&n=2. The moment that test scores prevail in
the minds of students and teachers, most of the power of natural
learning is leeched out and the traditional meme prevails. This does
not mean that scores on
tests are irrelevant. Rather, educators need to
come to terms with the oft demonstrated fact that students will
naturally perform better on tests when their learning is deep and
It can be done and it is being done. In our 2011 book we
describe two superb schools that illustrate the theory and the
practice. One is a set of nine schools, collectively known as High Tech
High in San Diego. See http://www.hightechhigh.org/about/
. The other is
Bridgewater school in South Australia. See http://www.bridgeps.sa.edu.au/
There are also many other organizations and schools that are tending in
this direction. They range from the EdVision schools (see http://www.edvisions.com/
to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (see http://www.educationrevolution.org/
And it is a pleasure to watch the masters of this very sophisticated
approach as they bring natural learning to the fore, day in and day
out, within a culture where educators themselves consciously engage
their own on-going learning and perception/action processes.
Caine R., and Caine, G. (2011). Natural Learning for a Connected World:
Education, Technology and the Human Brain. New York: Teachers
Capra, F. (1997). The
Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems.
Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, Reason and the
Human Brain. New York: Avon Books.
Edutopia. See http://www.edutopia.org/.
Fuster, J. M. (2003). Cortex and Mind: Unifying Cognition.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Maturana, H.R., Varela, F.J., and Paolucci, R.
(1998). The Tree of Knowledge:
The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA:
Sylwester, R. (2012). The Beginning Search for an Appropriate
Education. In Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education.
Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 2/2/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/243-creating-
Renate Caine and Geoffrey Caine
Renate N. Caine, Ph.D
researcher, theorist, writer, consultant. Executive Director: Natural
Learning Research Institute, a 501(c3) company that disseminates
research on neuroscience and learning. Her work with schools has been
featured on "Teacher TV", Discovery Channel, "Wizards of Wisdom" on PBS
and elsewhere. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Geoffrey Caine LL.M
coach, learning consultant, writer. He consults nationally and
internationally with schools, school districts, businesses,
philanthropic organizations, and governmental agencies. Email:
The Caines have co-authored nine books. See http://www.cainelearning.com/
Most recent: Natural Learning for a
Connected World: Education, Technology and the Human Brain
(Teachers College Press, 2011) and Strengthening
and Enriching Your Professional Learning Community: The Art of Learning
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